What to do in Eight Hours ashore… Juneau, Alaska – a Cruise Port Guide…
When we visited Alaska – on a one week roundtrip from Seattle on Oosterdam with Holland America Lines – we combined it with a long shore-based trip in Canada. We planned a lot of whale watching / bear watching/ float plane exploration in Canada so we thought that the cruise would be a good opportunity to see what there was to do on an Alaska trip without taking an organised excursion. We heard a lot of discussion about how expensive they can be, especially in Alaska and we were interested to look for alternatives.
The first thing to say is that when we were planning our trip we were shocked at how short some of the port stops were in Alaska – in comparison to other destinations. Obviously this is a combination of the ship having to enter and leave port at certain points of the tide and also of the distances to be covered between ports but it is certainly a factor to be considered when deciding to DIY it in Alaska as it really isn’t the place to be a pier runner – the logistics of transferring to the next port independently would be truly mind blowing!!
Juneau, the capital of Alaska since 1906, was our first port of call. It is the only American State Capital not accessible by road – everything and everyone arrives by boat or air! Named after one of the two men -Joe Juneau and Richard Harris – who discovered gold in the area back in 1880, the town quickly grew up as mines flourished in the hills above and by 1906 Juneau was centre of the worlds gold mining trade. Unfortunately it was a short lived title and by the 1940s labour shortages due to WW2 meant that the mines closed. Today the cruise industry is the main source of income and employment history of Juneau for the town and the Mendenhall Glacier is its most promoted attraction.
There were five pages of excursions for Juneau in the HAL brochure, ranging from $55 to $659 a head! The trip were mainly whale watching, fishing and trips by coach, helicopter or float plane out to various nearby glaciers for a variety of activities such as hiking, dog sledding, salmon bakes and glacier walking. We were quite impressed that HAL were selling tickets for the Mount Roberts Tramway at $35 – the same price as at the ticket office, HAL would even refund them if you returned them unused by ‘all aboard’ time! If you are planning on using the tramway it would definitely save time to buy tickets on board.
It is possible to book pretty much all the excursions independently, rather than through the cruise line, either online beforehand or in person when you arrive. If booking ahead be sure you can get a refund if you have to cancel due to bad weather etc. Many people also visit the main sights by taxi – $25 each way for a cab to the Mendenhall glacier seemed to be about standard. Cabs drop you at the visitor centre and then it is about a miles walk further on to see the waterfall and glacier. There is also a ‘blue bus’ shuttle to the visitor centre which costs about $35 each which didn’t seem brilliant value! We wanted to see what we could do without spending anything much so we decided not to take cabs but to get out and walk!
What is within walking distance of Juneau Cruise dock?
We docked alongside the pier with three other ships and, as you can see in the pictures, were immediately right in the centre of town. The dock area is flat with level access to the Mount Roberts lift, shops, the famous Tracy’s Crab Shack and the Red Dog Saloon as well as to the main shopping streets and museums. There were many booths on the boardwalk selling exactly the same excursions that had been available onboard, the prices advertised seemed to similar to those on board although there appeared to be discounts available.
We docked at 13.00 and were leaving at 21.00. Although that sound quite late it was still light at that time and most of the shops in town seemed happy to stay open as long as there were ships in port. It was our first experience of an Alaskan town and it looked much as we expected although we were quite surprised at the number of jewellery shops in town – HAL helpfully provide a map with them all marked! We initially thought this was because of Juneau’s history as a Gold Centre but it turned out to be a feature at every port and shopping for jewellery was obviously a popular cruise activity! Many of the other shops in town sported signs to say they were owned and operated by Alaskan families and amongst those we found some very interesting First Nations art, some lovely glass work and jewellery and a specialist woodcarving cooperative that featured some very unusual wooden guitars.
There is plenty to see and do in town so you could happily spend an afternoon without going very far at all. The weather was pretty awful while we were there, with constant rain and low cloud and many people seemed to choose not to go very far at all but there is plenty to see and do in town and you can happily spend a few hours without any organised trips at all. The main part of town is pretty flat, sloping steeply at the edge of town up into the hills. The Mount Roberts Tramway (the large building to the right of the port) is the easiest way to get up above the port. The Visitor Information Centre is next door to the Tramway base station.
If you just want to stay in town and mainly on the flat you can have a really interesting day…
A short walk around Juneau town
Leave the ship on South Franklin Street, where you will find shops, the Red Dog Saloon, The Alaskan Hotel and the Alaskan Brewing Company.
Then either head up the steep slope of North Franklin Street to the Russian Orthodox Church of St Nicholas or head left onto 4th street to the Alaskan State Capitol Building and the City Museum.
From here head on out along Caloun to the old Governors Mansion. Walk back to the port down Seward Street or head down the steps to Willoughby to reach the new Alaska State Museum (SLAM). This is well worth a visit to get a real understanding of the culture and history of Alaska. If this is your first port you will be able to discover more about First Nations and their influence on all the places you are heading for.
Heading back to the port along Seward Street you will find the Sealaska Heritage Centre and back down Marine Way to the Boardwalk, where you will find Traceys famous Crab Shack and the ship. walk past the ship to the foot of the Mount Roberts Tramway . The walk itself will take about an hour (more if you head up to the Governors Mansion) plus however long you spend looking at the various places but you’ll never be more than half a mile from the ship so you have absolutely no chance of missing it!!
- South Franklin Street
for shopping – the majority of shops aimed at visitors are strung along this to the left of the port.
- The Red Dog Saloon
dating back to the Gold Rush heyday, the Red Dog Saloon is a raucous spot popular with tourists and history buffs. The walls of the saloon are covered with an extraordinary collection of trophy heads and other memorabilia, including a pistol apparently lost in a bet by Wyatt Earp!
- The Alaskan Hotel
the oldest hotel in Alaska which opened in 1913 – still has its original wooden swing doors and a Tiffany glass facade and bar.
- Alaskan Brewing Company find the store for a free shuttle out to the Brewery for tasting and tours.
- Russian Orthodox Church of St Nicholas the church is a heady mix of candles, vestments and icons dating back to 1893 and is worth a quick look It also has a small gift shop.
- Alaskan State Capitol Building not as impressive as you might imagine but it has four impressive columns made with Ketchikan marble. Inside see two murals of local life, the senate rooms and the governors office on a self-guided tour, 0700 to 19.00
- Alaska State Museum (SLAM) this glitzy new museum is well worth a visit to get a real understanding of the culture and history of Alaska. If this is your first port its a good place to discover more about the First Nations and their influences in the places you are heading for.
- The City Museum in the Veterans Memorial Building focuses on local history especially on the Gold Rush and gold mining. You will find arts and crafts made by Veterans in a small shop to the side.
- Sealaska Heritage Centre in Seward Street focuses on First Nations History and the situation today with a full size replica Potlatch House and displays of First Nation Tlingit artefacts, dance costumes and masks.
- Tracy’s Crab Shack is the iconic place to eat Alaska crab in Juneau but will find lots of other places too!
- Mount Roberts Tramway is off to the right as you go ashore, away from the town – it takes you up to the viewpoint above the town.
What can I do on a hike or bus from Juneau Cruise dock?
- Mount Roberts Tramway and Trail. A trip on the Tramway (personally I’d call it a cablecar!) sounds expensive at $35 for a six minute trip but is probably worth it as it avoids a long, muddy, steep trek up the trails! We were quite impressed that HAL were selling tickets for the Mount Roberts Tramway at $35 – the same price as at the ticket office, HAL would even refund them if you returned them unused by ‘all aboard’ time! If you are planning on using the tramway it would definitely save time to buy tickets on board. If you don’t fancy a trek then there are still good views from the top station There is also a film on Tlinglit history, a bird centre, restaurant and gift shop. Apparently you can walk back down to the town on the Mount Roberts trail but read on..!
- Alpine Meadow from the top station you can take a circular hike out into the meadows, which are sometimes full of flowers. The lookout is about half a mile away with great views down to Juneau and across to Douglas Island. Either turn back here or continue on up to
- Mount Gastineau Ridge and follow a circular route back round to the top of the Tramway. Don’t attempt this without proper waterproof shoes as you may well encounter snow!
- Treadwell Mine Historical Trail take a local bus across to Douglas Island where you will find the site of one of the main gold mines ion the area – the 1910 explosion was the worst mining disaster in Alaska – well signposted trail around some interesting artefacts with great views back across to the port.
- Last Chance Mine Museum this is what we chose to visit – full report below!
What should I do by private tour or cruise excursion from Juneau Cruise dock??
- Whale Watching can be booked through the ship, privately online in advance or in one of the many tourist booths on the boardwalk. It really is an amazing experience but you need to know that there is whale activity nearby to make the most of it. Booking it locally means that you get a chance to be sure to talk to the captain about what you are likely to see. If booking on the day you need to get off the ship bright and early!
- Scenic Flights can be booked through the ship, privately online in advance or in one of the many tourist booths on the boardwalk. It really is an amazing – if expensive – experience but you need good weather to make the most of it. Booking it locally means that you get a chance to be sure the weather is ok and also to talk to the pilot about the route. You will normally see the tongrass forest, the bay and the Mendenhall Glacier but he may offer to take a slightly different route. There are LOADS of flights available – the planes buzz around all the time!
- Mendenhall Glacier – this is the big Juneau landmark. Impressive from a distance, it is absolutely fascinating close up. You can get to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centre by taxi or local bus – its about 12 miles. A taxi is about $25 each way to the Mendenhall glacier. There is also a ‘blue bus’ shuttle to the visitor centre – it costs about $35 each which didn’t seem brilliant value! Cabs drop you at the visitor centre and then it is about a miles walk further on to see the waterfall and glacier at Nugget Falls – on the way you might spot black bears fishing in the river. There are other routes of varying length, all well signposted – check at the visitors centre.
- Glacier Gardens Rainforest This botanical garden in the Tongrass Forest has a diverse range of native plants and amazing ecosystems. Tours from the base which is close to the airport take you high into the forest for a panoramic view of Juneau. Taxi or local bus from town
What we did with our day in Juneau
We wanted to have a good walk so we set off, on a typical damp Juneau morning, to join the Mount Roberts trail at the edge of town. We had been told that we could climb out of town on a stepped path from the top of 6th Street and meet the trail half way along. Unfortunately it turned out that the advice was out of date and the link was closed because of mudslides. We were a bit dispirited at having climbed so far up only to come back down again but decided to head on out of town to what had been our second option, the Flume Walk which runs alongside the river. We walked up Basin Road, crossed the lovely wooden bridge suspended over the river gorge and reached the trail start – only to find that it too was closed because of landslides and damage! So we were on to our Option 3!!
We headed for the Perseverance Trail – walking out of town along Basin Road, which runs along the side of Gold Creek river, and heading for the trail and the Last Chance Mine Museum. We were really glad that we did!
It is not a big museum by any means, more a collection of photos, memorabilia and old mining machines but it is run by real enthusiasts who are happy to talk to you about any of the exhibits. Looking at the site today it is hard to believe it once housed thousands of men and even had its own full sized baseball pitch! I particularly liked the old photos of the town on display – we could easily identify some of the landmarks and houses we had just walked past, Juneau really hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years!!
The museum has basic toilet facilities, there isn’t a cafe as such but they do have a fridge of the most reasonably priced sodas we saw all trip! There was also a small selection of geological souvenirs and books to buy.
As we walked back down from the mine and across the river we fell upon a huge group from the ship who were ‘panning for gold’ there. They had come up from the ship by coach and were then going straight back – the trip didn’t visit the museum which seemed a shame and I have to say we felt a little smug at having seen so much more and saved all that money.
We really had a very pleasant walk along through woods with the river running beside us, the road is very quiet and it’s a pretty level walk from the bridge onwards. On our way we spotted the start point of the Mount Roberts Trail which actually looked exceptionally muddy and rough. You would definitely need waterproof hiking boots to climb it but to be honest I would only do it if I was certain that I wasn’t going to get halfway and find it closed!!!
We had read that there was a trail from the Last Chance mine to the Mount Roberts mine but Museum staff said that the only way out was back down the road. They also suggested that once we got back to town we should head across to Douglas Island to visit the Treadwell Mine Historical Trail. But by the time we had walked down we were soaked through (the slight drizzle had turned to full on rain!) so we decided to leave that excursion for another time. However it looks as if Treadwell is accessible by local bus from the downtown transit hub on Egan Drive and Main street. The is mainly on the flat so it would make a nice visit with kids. If you are travelling with the family you might also like to know about the Twin Lakes park. It is just out of town and has a brilliant kids playground too – you can access it from town by bus or taxi.
That evening at dinner our family group swopped tales of their day. We shared a wide range of experiences between us – two took a sightseeing flight over the glaciers, two had been to the dog sledding camp, two went up the Tramway for a hike and two spent the afternoon in town, visiting the Red Dog Saloon and the Crab Shack – all pronounced their day awesome… which just goes to show you can spend a lot or a little and still have a great time in Juneau!!
I hope you enjoyed reading about how to spend your Eight Hours in Juneau and that it will be useful on your Alaskan cruise.
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